I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m going to write a sonnet series about the creation of California. I’m using the dual stories of William Mulholland and John Muir to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.
Of course, I’ve read all of Muir’s books. They’re brilliant and fun. There are flaws to the work, but as Californian environmentalist, I have stayed willfully blind to them. That’s dangerous. And if I want to turn him into a character, he needs to have real and true flaws. Since I’m structuring his first section after the Garden of Eden story in Genesis, he needs to have a sin equal to that of Adam and Eve’s.
So I’ve reread his work with this in mind. It’s a strange way to pick through the work of one of your heroes, trying to make him human. And if humanity is the same thing as being flawed, he was human in a number of ways. All of this is tempered by the fact that he was much more progressive than anyone else of his age, and he helped to create the national parks system. He helped us to understand what the natural world could be for us and how we should view it.
Creeping through his books, however, is the ever present sense that the Native Americans were somehow sub-human. There are passages that you could show me that fight against this interpretation, I know, but his dislike and mistrust of natives reveals itself again and again, as does the sense that manifest destiny is a legitimate way to view the world.
So Muir was human after all. He was flawed. If his views on Native Americans weren’t enough, he also left the natural world to itself to take up a kind of farming that I think Cesar Chavez would have found unethical. He understood the dangers of this life himself even as he was becoming an incredibly rich man.
So what was the original sin that cast him out of the Eden of the Sierras? I think it was his pursuit of money. As far as the structure of the first section goes, that will be what humanizes him. I’ll leave his prejudice for later.
This is not to say that my project is going to be to bring down the great man. Far from it. I’m still a huge fan. But I do think it’s important to allow human beings to be human. No one can be a god, and it’s not fair to expect that from anyone.